Prime Minister Erna Solberg used her annual, nationally televised New Year’s address Monday evening to signal more change and government reforms ahead, urging Norwegians to welcome change instead of resisting it. Her own government coalition launched into the New Year on Tuesday by resuming formal negotiations to change and expand itself, with the possible addition of the Liberal Party.
“We have to change if we’re to hang on,” Solberg said, not least in an era of rapidly emerging technology. At a time of digitalization and robots, she claimed that “no one should reach an expiry date themselves.” New training and ongoing restructuring of government and the economy are critical to her goal of creating a “sustainable welfare state” that, she said, will lead to “a new era for our country.”
It was thus widely viewed as music to Solberg’s ears when Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande, in an interview during the holidays with news bureau NTB, also stressed the need for “a sustainable welfare state.” Grande was sitting down once again on Tuesday with Solberg and Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, this time for far more serious discussions about joining their non-socialist coalition. They still won’t form a majority government, but there can be strength in numbers and the three party leaders have proven earlier that they have all but mastered the art of compromise. That held Solberg’s and Jensen’s coalition together from 2013 to 2017 and all three seem keen on finding new “solutions” that could allow them to actually rule together.
Tough talks loom over immigration, integration and climate policy, the three areas where the Liberals differ the most, especially from Jensen’s Progress Party. That’s where Solberg’s pragmatism can play an important role, according to political commentator Trine Eilsertsen in newspaper Aftenposten. She views Solberg as one of the most “pragmatic” prime ministers Norway has ever had, taking setbacks on apparently less-important issues in stride in return for pushing forward more important long-term reforms. Municipal and county mergers, major changes in transport policy and competence demands among teachers have emerged as more important than expanded paternity leave, new evaluations of young asylum seekers or new taxes on airline seats and sugar. The negotiations with the Liberals will show where Solberg’s and Jensen’s limits lie.
Solberg’s New Year’s address, meanwhile, was her fifth after her Conservative Party, and her conservative government coalition with the Progress Party, won re-election in September. She refrained from mentioning the crises that have been tearing apart her coalition’s arch rival, the Labour Party, ever since, even as her address was being broadcast.
Solberg chose instead to focus on how most Norwegians are seeing brighter times ahead after the oil price collapse in 2014 that sent the economy into a sudden dive. It’s since been recovering and Solberg spent a lot of time talking about how unemployment is down and job creation is up. Both were key issues in the election campaign against Labour, which failed to win voters with its much bleaker assessment. Even Labour has had to admit that the economy has recovered, and prospects are high for more growth.
‘Full support’ for new ‘freedom generation’
Then Solberg headed into what Aftenposten called her “most important” New Year’s message, about important change also on the social front. Solberg won kudos for praising how minority women in Norway are now daring to push for their own reforms within immigrant communities known for exerting social control. These “brave young women” have called themselves “shameless,” and Solberg hailed their creation of a frihetsgenerasjon (literally,freedom generation ) that has her “full support.” She noted how new first- and second-generation immigrants want to decide for themselves how to live their lives and make their voices heard, despite the “serious threats” they face and “agitation” they’re stirring up. Aftenposten, which called Solberg’s address her best ever, editorialized on Tuesday that Solberg was also “wise” to recognize the concerns of minority parents and include them in her appeal for support for the new generation.
Solberg’s address was also the first by a prime minister to directly address concerns about how Norwegians’ largely liberal values are challenged by “a new type of social debate” characterized by harder words. She urged Norwegians to be more critical about debate on social media, for example, and to reject attempts at polarization and intolerance.
Nancy Herz, one of the leaders of the new “freedom generation,” told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) after Solberg’s address that she greatly appreciated the support from Solberg. “It’s fine recognition of our work,” she said, “and of the experiences among those who feel how (various concepts of) shame and honour limit their lives.”
Herz, who was among three young minority women to win a major Freedom of Expression award in Norway last year from the prestigious Fritt Ord (Free Word) organization, stressed that support from Solberg isn’t enough, though. She challenged the prime minister herself to send a “clear message” to some members of her own government “that it’s not acceptable to use polarizing rhetoric” to create policy. Herz refrained from naming any names, claiming instead that all politicians carry the responsibility.